The Magnetic Fields – The Charm of the Highway Strip

Gather ’round kids, and listen as “Uncle Steve” Merritt tells nine.5 times the tale of how he left his love to take to the open road and possibly became a zombie.
No, really, the lyrical depth of this album is such that its leitmotif is walking the earth as the undead, while the motifs are expanses of highways and trains, and it’s still not my favourite album ever. It comes down to the musical mise en scene: I’m just not a huge fan of layers of cheapass keyboards to the exclusion of all else, even if all else is rather impressive. Merritt’s super-deep voice goes really well with his mess of NES sound files, and the lyrics range from “standard love fare” to “disturbingly affecting and/or clever,” but the refusal to ever have a real instrument never helps anything. In a few cases it ruins songs, like the ultra-MIDI “Long Vermont Roads” and the inability to properly imitate a country twang guitar on the otherwise great “Two Characters In Search Of A Country Song.” There’s really no song that wouldn’t be helped by at least more expensive keyboards, but there’s a bunch of songs that no amount of tacky sounds could possibly ruin – the Neil Young-ish “Fear Of Trains”, the romantic “I’ll Have The Moon”, and holy shit the fucking incredible “Born On A Train” – how could I ever disparage someone who wrote fucking “Born On A Train”? That song is just ridiculous, combining some glorious kind of bathos – “I’ve been making promises I know I’ll never keep / One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep / I’ll have to go when the whistle blows / The whistle knows my name / Baby I was born on a train” – with two lovely vocal melodies that mesh perfectly with ol’ Barelysingin Deepvoice’s deep voice.
There’s also some filler here – meh to that, but it’s not helped by the constant keyboards that have always been. And “Crowd Of Drifters” isn’t filler, just a bad overly dramatic impression of a Western movie (about zombies’) soundtrack.
But I don’t know, who am I, when a man once wrote “Born On A Train” and a bunch of other songs about highways and trains? Alls I knows is that the highway strip itself reminds me of the suburbs, which I do not find charming other than as shadow to and of my skyscrapers and countryside. I want to love this album more, but ultimately there’s a limited amount of joy to be found here, though that joy is great. The album rises and falls mostly on the strength of its melodies. Even pretty lyrics are just words when the song itself is a mush of fake drums and beep boops. But hey, more than I’m doing with my life. Wanna go swimming tomorrow? Neither do I, it’s gonna rain. I’ll just go to the gym and read Game of Thrones and practice guitar. Like I was seventeen, that would be a scream, but I’m twenty-eight years old.

6 / 10

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